powerful moments in education
On realizing that a deliberate agenda can turn into the tornado in The Wizard of Oz, leading you to an unexpected, or not so unexpected, land of Technicolor….
I remember it as one of my strongest childhood memories- the nights when we would stumble upon an evening showing of The Wizard of Oz. We might have been at grandma’s apartment in the upstairs bedroom, awaiting the arrival of the popcorn in the little patchwork wooden bowls. We might have been taking showers and readying for bed when the night turned into couches and blankets and of course, more popcorn. Regardless of the timing, I would drop everything and settle in. Each time, I wished I could open my mouth and the emerging tones would sound and feel just like Judy Garland’s. I wanted to live on a farm, feeling free and rustic and…American, I guess. For some reason, however, for my older sister and sometimes for me, the movie didn’t really begin until Dorothy breaks the silence by gingerly opening the farmhouse door, peering outside, tiptoeing around the corner to discover a rainbow land of beauty. Despite the tumultuous tornado, nasty bump on the head from the flying windowpane, and wicked witch broadcasted through her bedroom window, she rebirths on the other side of the door wide-eyed, bewildered, yet amazed, complete with the shiniest and freshly applied red lipstick…
Last spring I had a pretty intense conversation with my 13 third graders regarding comprehension. The vision of 8 year olds is always a treat, but this group in particular possesses the very special trait of connectedness- with each other, with our lessons, with everything I teach. Sure a few space out, maybe the topic is something he or she doesn’t care for, or the discussion reaches an intellectual level beyond most of their capacity, but at the core this group of students takes on the world of learning with pure purpose and joy, despite their low test scores according to the lovely state assessments.
It started a few days before when I was meeting with colleagues, who I am lucky to say are truly my friends. We initiated a book group discussion group for the year, led by one of our favorite ponderers of literacy, Tomasen Carey. We were examining the relationship between comprehension, accuracy, fluency, and vocabulary, wondering how equal they are…or aren’t? Clearly comprehension is the overarching umbrella, but how would this look as a visual for kids?
So naturally when I want to know how the kids see it, I ask them! They know they are supposed to be comprehending…I know in my heart that they do, but….. We have been working on questioning- making different types of questions, challenging ourselves to ask questions that we do not already know the answer to quite yet. Through this work, it is becoming very clear to them how thin their comprehension actually is! They visibly struggled with making the questions, and only a few could answer various types with ease. After 2 hardworking Readers’ Workshop sessions of partner reading and questioning, a girl with the accuracy and fluency of a 4th grader but the comprehension and vocabulary of a brand-new 1st grader asked if she could read Click Clack Moo, Cows that Type by Doreen Cronin to the class. Since my little reader and I had already conferred about this book a few times, I knew she would be ready. We had already worked through the 2 tough words in the book “impatient” and “ultimatum”. I told her it would be a great mini-lesson for us to practice our questioning. But I also knew that it was really going to put her on the spot. It’s a familiar book for all the kids, which made it another great reason to use it to practice the questioning.
They had to WORK. We applied discussion starters such as “Compare blank and blank”, or “Describe what happened when blank”- things like that, taken from 4 types of questions we had been focusing on recently. Right There, Author & Me, My Own Thoughts, and Think & Search.
Not only did they struggle with making the questions, many of the first responses weren’t even accurate, and not many raised their hand to correct their classmates. Many of them tried to answer every question with some version of “the farmer is mad” and I kept having to say, “But that is not what the question is asking!”
I had known since before the first day of school how low their comprehension truly is but it was glaringly obvious to all at that moment. I did not however cry, (like I did the first week of school when I was trying to understand why I had to waste 6 days of NECAPS when there was real work to be done). I smiled because I could see that their awareness of the importance of comprehension showed its scary face, but also because with the work we were doing, I saw a light at the end of the tunnel.
The first reason, is that an intelligent boy with seemingly attentional disconnect had the question starter, “Why did the author include….?” And he did not ask a surface question like “Why did the author include cows and hens?” or something like that. He asked, “Why did the author include the ducks writing the letter at the end?” This was the ultimate question. I praised him like crazy. Yeah. Why DID the author write an ending that does not seem like an ending? This got them going. My girl in the reading spotlight was like, “Yeah I don’t, like, get that because where did they even get the typewriter and why is it now click clack quack when it is supposed to be about cows?” One piece of my heart sank because she really really did not get it. But I was uplifted when hands shot up and she started calling on kids who each gave their own version of explaining that the author is making you think ahead to a new story-enter reason #2 I saw light peeking through the tunnel. Now her lightbulb did not really turn on full wattage, but her wheels were turning. And truly, she was cooked after this lesson.
When we finally finished with this student-led-with-teacher-intervention-lesson, they all kind of exhaled with wide eyes. And this was where our conversation about comprehension began. “Look how big comprehension really is guys! Let’s look at our reading strategy menu.” One girl interrupts to remind me, “not just our reading menu, it’s a writing menu, too!” I ask the million dollar question- “They all look equal up there, but are they?” Another kid says, “No comprehension— it should be like as big as the sun!” Keep going, I say. Conversation took off. “What if like comprehension is the sun and then there are the clouds, which are the other skills and then raindrops come out and those are all the strategies…but rainclouds are kind of depressing, and then you couldn’t see the sun…” I felt all warm and fuzzy as I saw the excitement of his metaphor peek and then fall, mostly because he started to rethink his design due to reality….
What I heard next was incredible. Words describing comprehension as a tall building with lots of different windows floated around the group, with different floors being different skills and windows being the strategies into those skills. My Click Clack Moo reader raised her hand and announced that it should be a skyscraper! Everyone wanted to share their own metaphor and I wished that we could have stopped everything to write them all down in that moment, but I was starting to lose the attention of many and we had been sitting for about 40 minutes at this point. “I’ll tell you what.” I tell them, beginning to provide closure to this marathon lesson, “Let this idea swirl around in your brains a little bit, and next week we will draw our own metaphors for what reading and writing look like. I am looking forward to that.” And they left me thinking hard about a tall strong building, with different floors and windows and doors and rooms……
So did we improve our comprehension skill of questioning that day? Maybe. Maybe not. But I’ll tell you one thing- these kids KNOW that without the strategies, you have nothing when it comes to reading. And they knew it was hard. And they aren’t going to give up.
Technicolor, friends, technicolor. Guaranteed this group of students do not realize that Oz is closer than they think and truly hoping they are not thwarted by poppies…